Title: The Charm Offensive
Author: Alison Cochrun
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: September 7, 2021
Length: 358 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Dev Deshpande has always believed in fairy tales. So it’s no wonder then that he’s spent his career crafting them on the long-running reality dating show Ever After. As the most successful producer in the franchise’s history, Dev always scripts the perfect love story for his contestants, even as his own love life crashes and burns. But then the show casts disgraced tech wunderkind Charlie Winshaw as its star.
Charlie is far from the romantic Prince Charming Ever After expects. He doesn’t believe in true love, and only agreed to the show as a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate his image. In front of the cameras, he’s a stiff, anxious mess with no idea how to date twenty women on national television. Behind the scenes, he’s cold, awkward, and emotionally closed-off.
As Dev fights to get Charlie to connect with the contestants on a whirlwind, worldwide tour, they begin to open up to each other, and Charlie realizes he has better chemistry with Dev than with any of his female co-stars. But even reality TV has a script, and in order to find to happily ever after, they’ll have to reconsider whose love story gets told.
In this witty and heartwarming romantic comedy—reminiscent of Red, White & Royal Blue and One to Watch—an awkward tech wunderkind on a reality dating show goes off-script when sparks fly with his producer.
Full disclosure: I have never, ever watched an episode of The Bachelor. I don’t believe people can find true love via a TV reality dating show. But, grudgingly, I suspended my disbelief in order to read The Charm Offensive, and ended up enjoying it quite a bit.
In The Charm Offensive, Charlie makes for an unpredictable and unconventional “prince” for the fairy-tale based dating show Ever After, supposedly the most successful and popular dating show on TV. Charlie is a former tech genius who was fired from his own company. His publicist thinks putting him out there as a romantic lead on a hugely-watched show will rehabilitate his image… and hopefully, make him seem employable again when it’s all over. Are you feeling skeptical about this plan? Yeah, me too.
Meanwhile, Dev is a production team member of Ever After, tasked with “handling” the twenty women cast as potential love interests for Charlie. But after the initial filming attempt goes horribly, with Charlie barely able to talk on camera, Dev is reassigned to be Charlie’s handler. It’s Dev’s job to prep Charlie for the grueling weeks ahead, getting him into prince mode and making sure he’s ready to be on camera and at the center of attention.
The more time Dev and Charlie spend together, the more their chemistry and connection grow… but not without challenges. Charlie, it becomes clear early on, suffers from debilitating panic attacks and OCD, and he can barely keep things together when he’s under stress, which is pretty much constant on the set of Ever After. Dev deals with recurring depression himself, but his preferred persona is “Fun Dev” — he’s always, always upbeat and on when he’s around his coworkers and the cast, not wanting anyone to see beyond the surface.
Dev is out and proud, but he’s concerned about his growing attraction to the gorgeous Charlie. Charlie is… enigmatic. Because of his differences, Charlie has never seen himself as worthy of love, and he’s never explored romance or sexuality. As he spends time with the women competing for his heart, as well as spending almost 24/7 with Dev, he starts to acknowledge the attraction and the feelings he has — all for Dev. Yet his contract with the show requires him to continue playing out the romantic fantasy with the women competing to be his princess, and as for Dev, his career is on the line if he allows himself to act on his feelings for Charlie.
Charlie and Dev are very sweet together, and they share moments of vulnerability and honesty, as well as some absolutely swoon-worthy kisses. At first glance, the premise of The Charm Offensive makes this book seem like it’ll be mostly airy and light, but there’s actual depth here. Both Charlie and Dev have mental health issues to address, and Charlie is someone who’s neuro-atypical in a world that doesn’t quite know what to make of him or how to make room for him.
Additionally, Charlie hasn’t had an opportunity in his life to ever really consider love or orientation, and it’s refreshing to see the characters in this book talk about the spectrum of ways a person can be, discussing not just straight vs gay, but also delving into demisexuality, being aro/ace, graysexual, and more. There are some deeper moments of soul-searching that enable the characters to move beyond easy definitions and labels and make them feel like well-rounded, well-developed individuals.
The concept of Ever After is so ridiculous that it’s actually really funny, with the contestants competing in quests like rescuing Charlie from a tower and kissing frogs, the prince handing out tiaras at the weekly crowning ceremonies, and even the absolutely vital moment of riding up on a white horse. Still, the nagging little logical part of my brain couldn’t help thinking that there is actually no way that a show like this would cast someone like Charlie, who’s never been on camera, can’t speak publicly, is unbelievably awkward, and has just no game when it comes to the women. I couldn’t buy the idea that the show would gamble on him as its lead — it makes no sense, and it also makes no sense that this is the best idea Charlie’s publicist has for rehabbing his image and getting him another job in tech.
Putting that aside, there is a lot to appreciate and enjoy about The Charm Offensive. The writing is often very funny:
These are not appropriate morning-yoga thoughts. He tries to focus on things that calm him: Excel spreadsheets, quiet libraries, one-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles, 90-degree angles.
Dude, except for the 90-degree angles, I so relate.
Also puzzle-themed, I actually think Charlie could be my soulmate in another universe:
“This is your idea of a romantic time?”
… Dev asked Charlie what he would do with his ideal afternoon. So now they’re working on a jigsaw puzzle while watching the first season of The Expanse…
Most of all, Dev and Charlie are both great characters, and I loved seeing their connection grow. This is a sweet, funny, and thoughtful look at love and communication and choosing happiness. The geeky sci-fi and puzzle bits are just icing on the cake!